We Are Not Yet Whole: Integrating Sustainability Into The Core Of The Business

A dictionary definition of the word integrate is “to make or be made into a whole.” In the field of corporate sustainability, integration is arguably the holy grail; a moment when we can truly say that sustainability has been made one with the business.
How close, or how far away we are from this is one of the key highlights of our seventh annual BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business Survey 2015, released today. Our survey of more than 400 business leaders from 196 global companies highlights perspectives on a number of key sustainability issues and priorities of the day, including how businesses intend to incorporate international policy agreements such as COP21 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their business strategies, goals, and activities.

Key findings

One key finding in the research is the progress being made in integrating sustainability into the core of the business. With almost seven in ten (67%) of professionals saying that sustainability is integrated at least fairly well into their business, this is a positive finding given the challenges of integration that have been highlighted in previous BSR/GlobeScan surveys. However, while this is encouraging, it is balanced by the fact that just 13 percent believe that sustainability is “extremely well” integrated.

When examining how businesses are integrating sustainability, we see that integration is very clearly happening in a variety of ways. Majorities of companies report that there is a direct reporting line from the sustainability function to the executive team (62%) and that sustainability is integrated into products and services (56%). However, at a deeper level of integration we see that sustainability is included in KPIs in less than half of companies (48%), and embedded into compensation/bonuses of executives or employees in less than a quarter (22%). While we should take heart that there are companies leading the way by reaching this deeper level of integration, we should perhaps hope for more. 
Significant corporate failings, directly related to weak sustainability performance, force us to reflect on this deeper level of integration. With a deeper integration of sustainability into the business, especially linked to compensation and corporate KPIs whereby everyone in the business understood, accepted and operated with sustainability as part of their roles and respnsibilities, would challenges ranging from the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster to the LIBOR scandal to the most recent VW recall have been averted?

Too much to ask?

While our research findings show that sustainability is perceived to be fairly high on the agenda of CEOs (in 72% of companies, sustainability is reported to be among the CEO’s top ten priorities), fully embedding sustainability across a large enterprise that can include hundreds of thousands of employees is a daunting challenge. And despite their incredibly hard work, we cannot expect resource-constrained sustainability teams to be able to do this on their own (in almost seven in ten of the large companies surveyed, the sustainability team is comprised of 20 people or less).
Perhaps the answer lies in the company’s purpose. If everyone in the organization is aligned with an authentic business purpose that clearly defines the value that the company seeks to create and how it contributes to society, and if this purpose is explicitly used to direct key business decisions in the way the value is created, then it is likely to be much easier to integrate sustainability practices and principles throughout the business. If employees at all levels are compelled by the very nature of the company to think about how they drive long-term value for the company and society, then we might be able to get closer to the goal of wholly integrating sustainability into the core of the business.

On Wednesday, September 30th, GlobeScan’s James Morris and BSR’s Laura Gitman and Aditit Mohapatra hosted a webinar to help launch the results of this year’s survey. Please click here to watch a recording of that webinar.

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About GlobeScan
Since 1987, GlobeScan has helped clients measure, understand and build valuable relationships with their stakeholders, and to work collaboratively in delivering a sustainable and equitable future. Uniquely placed at the nexus of reputation, brand and sustainability, GlobeScan partners with clients to build trust, drive engagement and inspire innovation within, around and beyond their organizations.